Isabella Farrington is a junior  politics and international relations major and studio art minor


This post is the third of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this introduction for some brief context.

In his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alan Alda tackles what it is exactly that prevents people, especially highly knowledgeable individuals, from being good communicators. Time and time again, through his acting expertise, collaboration with scientists, and firsthand experiences, he comes to the same conclusion: we forget about empathy. Without empathy, communication becomes ineffective, muddled with disinterest, suspicion, and confusion. As humans, we have the great, but limited, capacity to acknowledge others emotionally, one that many attribute as a solely human trait. Why, then, do we often forget to engage empathy in the very moments it is meant for? Well, our humanness also affords us the ability to house pride, fear, selfishness, and stress that distract us from truly relating to others. As citizens, scientists, and relational beings, to truly engage empathy for communication, we must prioritize empathy as a humble, selfless, and practiced tool.

Alda’s explanation of empathy in its importance for effective communication is one of the most appealing and relevant analyses of his book. Empathy is the motivator for understanding. For instance, storytelling as a vital communication tool connects individuals, requiring empathy to do so. As a character experiences hardship, we connect with their thoughts and feelings, expressing sadness or hope as we watch their journey and oscillate between putting aside or relating our own circumstances to theirs. The same is true for the storyteller: being able to attentively relate to your audience, sensing the emotions and reactions of the other person during the storytelling process, “is everything” (132). In other words, empathy empowers narratives, giving us fundamental emotional pathways to grasp understanding. But these pathways require a certain level of sacrificing our own priorities. Storytelling is one example; there are numerous other ways in which empathy can be applied to better our connectivity and communication. However, there are also many ways in which empathy can be abused, the underestimation of which can have significant consequences.

Although Alda does dedicate time to the misuses of empathy to manipulate, he fails to capture just how effectively modes of empathy can negatively impact the thought processes of audiences, especially in terms of commonality biases. Alda describes how the level and awareness of commonality between a speaker and listener increases how “in sync” their brains are (178). Moreover, commonality acts as a highway to empathizing with storytelling. He briefly references how politicians, companies, and other organizations can take advantage of empathy to persuade the public to unknowingly support a narrative that does not really align with their values, but writes that familiarity is still effective if it does not seem fake (184). Alda’s conclusion here lacks significant extension and emphasis on the dangers of empathy, specifically in this model of storytelling and commonality.

Bias as a natural part of receiving stories often perpetuates confirmation bias, polarization, misinformation, exclusion, and even harmful language when groups’ motives are self-centered and competitive. The prevalence of successfully molded narratives to suit unethical or inward focusing needs is seen throughout history, with propaganda, conspiracy theories, and everyday marketing.understanding.[1][2] Wholly recognizing the limits and dangers of commonality in storytelling can allow us to not only better equip storytellers to reframe processes to consider how they might ethically meet the audience’s needs, but also audiences in defending against altered narratives. Alda misses these notable dangers of commonality in storytelling and, thus, the practical importance of being aware of the selfish uses of empathy.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? brings readers an old-is-the-new-new perspective on empathy in communication – we have always had it, but we do not always use it. By understanding the impact of empathy, and storytelling, in the communication and acceptance of ideas, as professionals within the political science field, we can utilize these tools to communicate complex ideas across various levels of knowledge, to educate, and to be educated. As citizens, individuals, and groups with values, we can acknowledge how narrative affects the way we think, and how our capacity for empathy might be targeted by altered narratives, so that we may more sensibly enact critical analyses of information and ethical practices with empathy. As all these roles and simply as human beings, we can remind ourselves that a little humility can lead to a lot of understanding.


[1], João Ricardo de Oliveira Júnior, Ricardo Limongi, Weng Marc Lim, Jacqueline K. Eastman, and Satish Kumar. “A Story to Sell: The influence of Storytelling on Consumers’ Purchasing Behavior,” Psychology & Marketing, 40, no. 2 (Feb 2023):239–261.

[2] Fred Shaw. “The Power and Danger of Storytelling.” Pittsburgh Quarterly, (Fall 2022),


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